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It took an obscure article about a Yiddish-language production of Death of a Salesman written more than half a century ago in a niche publication to draw Traveling Jewish Theatre to the classics. "What one feels most strikingly is that this Yiddish play is really the original, and the Broadway production was merely Arthur Miller's translation into English," wrote critic George Ross in Commentary magazine, comparing the celebrated Jewish actor, director, and translator Joseph Buloff's 1951 Yiddish Salesman (Toyt fun a Salesman) with the English-speaking version that had eclipsed Broadway only two years before.
For a company that has focused, up until now, on exploring issues to do with Jewish identity and culture through the creation of original, new plays, the decision to take on one of American literature's most iconic dramas is a bold move. Not only does staging Miller's mid-20th-century warhorse mark an artistic departure for TJT, but despite the minor cottage industry that's grown up since the days of Buloff's Yiddish production around excavating the play for ethnic clues Salesman isn't really a Jewish drama.
Miller may be a Jew (he was born into a middle-class, New York Jewish family in 1915), but his plays do not often set out to tell a specifically ethnic story. Centering on Willy Loman, a sixtysomething traveling salesman of no particular racial extraction whose thwarted hopes of financial success and popularity lead to the deterioration of his mental health and the lives of those around him, Salesman has gained a universal following over the decades for its message about the emptiness of the "American Dream." The play's enduring power owes much to its transcendent, non-culturally specific appeal. It is precisely this quality that has inspired such diverse interpretations as Jacqueline Moscou's all-black Salesman at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center in Seattle a couple of years ago and the first Chinese production of the play that Miller himself directed in 1983.
The play's fundamental un-Jewishness seems only to have spurred TJT onward. Ever since company members Aaron Davidman and Corey Fischer stumbled upon Ross' antiquarian review, TJT has been immersed in the process of "rediscovering the Jewish essence" of the classic. From the intensity of the performances to the fluidity and clarity of director Davidman's staging, the company succeeds in creating an engrossing production. Yet it takes more than thick-as-brisket Brooklyn accents, a couple of perfunctory "oy veys!" and some yarmulkes to convince us of its Jewishness.
To the extent that it's possible to distance oneself from the premise behind the production, this Salesman is an easy sell. One of the most powerful aspects of Davidman's staging is his creation of a psychic space on stage. Crisp lighting changes, from white, denoting "reality," to the warm orange of Willy's fantasy life, draw an efficient line between the play's two states. Jessica Ivry's live cello music, heard every time the action slips into Willy's over-ripe imagination, fluidly accentuates the divide. The barren stage, scattered with a few random pieces of furniture like wallflowers at a cocktail party and scarred with the white markings of the open road, suggests isolation and loneliness. In short, we feel like we are looking at the insides of Willy's head.
And what a head it is. As portrayed by Fischer, Willy is a man clutching desperately to his last vestiges of reason. Rattling around the stage with his beat-up valises, alternately bursting with aggressive ebullience and crippled despair, this Willy is a spluttering light bulb about to spend its fuse. Taking his cues from Ivry's cello, Fischer gives an extremely physical performance. When Ivry plays a sprightly pizzicato, Fischer lightens up. His long frame extends and his whole body seems to fill with air. But when the cello changes its tune to the plodding shuffle of a worn old man, so Fischer's body appears to collapse on itself. The muscles on his face tighten. He walks with an uneven, exhausted gait. The scenes between Willy and his eldest son, Biff (Michael Navarra), bring the actor's physical command of his character to the fore. The greater Biff's frustration grows, the more contorted Willy's body becomes. The full horror and pathos of Miller's tragedy can be seen in the interactions between these two characters. In these hallowed moments, Salesman reveals itself to be more about the complex relationships between fathers and sons than about the American-Jewish experience.
If only it were possible to forget that we're supposed to be watching a Jewish interpretation of the play. Instead of being able to sit back and immerse ourselves in the action, we're constantly on a hunt for clues to the hidden Jewish subtext in Miller's script. In the article that inspired TJT's production, Ross makes a mildly convincing case for the idea that Miller was "thinking in Yiddish and unconsciously translating" when he penned his play. The reviewer draws on the clunky, Eastern European-sounding syntax of Linda's (Willy's wife's) impassioned line "attention must be paid" and the shtetl sensibility behind Willy's repeated claim that Biff has failed to find himself "for spite," as evidence of Salesman's Jewish roots. Yet while such lines may have seemed loaded to a Yiddish-speaking audience of second-generation immigrants half a century ago, the words simply don't have the same impact on an English-speaking audience today. Fischer and Jerri Lynn Cohen (as Linda) try to emphasize these phrases. But all hint of cultural specificity fades every time Cohen's accent lurches from brassy Flatbush to a very non-gefilte-fish-infused, Anglicized drawl less Linda Loman than Lady Macbeth.
Miller once said: "To me the theater is not a disconnected entertainment ... It's the sound and the ring of the spirit of the people at any one time. It is where a collective mass of people, through the genius of some author, is able to project its terrors and its hopes and to symbolize them." Coming together to experience a deeply Jewish production of Salesman in Yiddish at a particular point in history, it's very possible that audiences at Buloff's 1951 production felt an ethnic connection to Miller's play. But to today's audiences, the Jewish reading feels superimposed upon the drama. Producers of the play need to find ways of making Miller's words speak to contemporary audiences instead of reaching into the past for inspiration.
It's a sign of the strength of TJT's creativity that the production somehow manages to rise above the artificiality of its premise. I'm not sold on this Jewish Salesman. The play's about as tied to the Talmud as is Madonna. But it speaks to us nonetheless.
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